"I can't imagine anything a black man would want to be more right now than bulletproof."
So says Mike Colter, the star of new Netflix series "Marvel's Luke Cage." It's not only the comic book company's first black-led onscreen property — the character, who first appeared as a love interest in Netflix sister series "Jessica Jones," arrives two years before the "Black Panther" film — it's also Marvel's most political effort yet.
Luke Cage, after all, is a bulletproof black man in a hoodie. That is all you need to be political in the age of Black Lives Matter.
"It's a nod to Trayvon, no question," says Colter. "Trayvon Martin and people like him. People like Jordan Davis, a kid who was shot because of the perception that he was a danger. When you're a black man in a hoodie all of a sudden you're a criminal."
"That's something we shouldn't have to deal with, but we do. It's a double standard. We can't cover our head when it's cold and raining because God forbid someone sees us and puts our life in danger. We wanted to pay homage to that — it's not something we were shying away from."
"Luke Cage" is the most timely TV series since the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot took on the war on terror in the wake of 9-11. In fact, it's more timely today than when I interviewed Colter a couple weeks ago, before the police shootings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and of Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Not to mention the show itself was made more than a year ago.
"When we were filming this, there were different things going on," recalls Colter. "Eric Garner, the policemen were acquitted. No one was brought to justice. There was no handing out of any sentence. There are a couple other things that happened during the time we were filming. We were watching the news and it was always someone being shot who was unarmed, and there is no justification for it. It's mind-boggling."
Black Lives Matter
"The writers aren't immune to the society that they live in, they are acutely aware and I'm sure it helped inspire them," he adds.
"The show isn't just Black Lives Matter, that's not what the whole show is about. That being said, it will strike a chord with some people because you can't help not think about it. The people who are watching will tell us what having a bulletproof black man means to them."
Collter is correct that "Luke Cage" isn't just about Black Lives Matter. The character, who gained his super powers of strength and invulnerability while being victimized by the American correctional system, dates all the way back to 1972. Unfortunately, the status quo from 44 years ago remains painfully familiar.
"The people who are watching will tell us what having a bulletproof black man means to them."
"This has always been going on, the only difference is that now we have camera phones. People are just more aware of it," Colter says. "I don't think Luke Cage as a superhero is something that has changed dramatically from the '70s to now. He's a black man going through the same thing as other people of colour, it's just that he has superpowers."
His comic book origin story, slightly tweaked for the Netflix series, is that he was Harlem gang member-gone-straight Carl Lucas. Framed for heroin possession and sent to Seagate prison, he was tortured by a sadistic guard and experimented on by a prison doctor. After a scientific experiment gone awry, he gained powers, escaped prison, adopted the alias Luke Cage and became a "hero for hire" named Power Man because, unlike his white peers, he was dead broke.
Cage arrived in the wake of the civil rights era and though preceded by a pair of Stan Lee creations — African king Black Panther in 1966 and Captain America sidekick Falcon in 1969 — he was the first black superhero to star in his own title. That was thanks to the commercial clout of the then-popular Blaxploitation film genre.
"It's 1972. 'Shaft' is out. 'Superfly' is on the verge of coming out. Fred Williams is making 'Black Caesar.' So they said 'why don't we try that in a Marvel context with Luke Cage,''" says showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, who previously won a NAACP Image Award for writing the gritty cop drama "Southland."
"A lot of those movies were about black men taking on the system because what would happen in real life was that being a forthright black man was considered a threat — in some cases still is."
To fit this mould, Luke Cage wore a mostly open, bright yellow shirt with a belt literally made out of a chain and he'd spout catchphrases like "Sweet Christmas!" But Coker notes that the power of Power Man came from the fact that for the first time he wasn't a sidekick, comic relief or "the magical negro."
He was the lead, and he was a badass.
Cage has been a consistent presence in comics for the past four decades — teaming up with martial artist Iron Fist (who will also be getting his own Netflix series), having a baby with Jessica Jones and joining the Avengers — and is no longer an outlier on the printed page.
Superhero diversity has become a huge priority for Marvel's comic book division. Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, is now Captain America and half-black, half-Hispanic Miles Morales is Spider-Man while the Hulk is Korean-American, Hawkeye and Wolverine are both now female characters and Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teen named Kamala Khan.
But that diversity has had a harder time making it on screen, which is why Cage finds himself once again in a pioneering position. In other words, then as now, Luke Cage not only has to bear the Spider-Man lesson that with great power comes great responsibility, Coker says he also has "the responsibility of putting the community on your shoulders."
"When the bullets bounce off Superman there is no social context because the Kryptonian alien is bulletproof. But when you have a black person with impenetrable skin and have a bullet bounce off, whether that's a criminal bullet or a police bullet, it adds a whole other swath of political overtures to that interaction," Coker says.
And not for the first time, either. Coker points out that it has always been Marvel's m.o., "to help people understand what is happening in society through the context of superheroes and super powers, and make these conversations easier."
He mentions how the conversations and perspectives of Charles Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men was intended to get people thinking of the differing approaches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, not to mention making Magneto a Holocaust survivor to add a "never again" element to his distrust of the system.
More recently, Marvel's "Civil War" storyline balancing privacy and security was inspired by the post-9/11 Patriot Act.
"Comic books are a very natural teaching instrument," he says. "What's been happening makes the show and the character socially relevant. I wish that it was played out, I wish there wasn't such a rash of these incidents where all of a sudden having a bulletproof black man is the centre of all these things because trust me, we don't deal with these things as a means to market the show."
But the series — which features the wrongfully convicted Cage on the streets of Harlem taking on criminal kingpins (Mahershala Ali's Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes) and shady politicians (Alfre Woodard's Mariah Dillard) as well as corrupt cops — is not running away from the subtext.
Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth and Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard.
"It was important to me, as the father of two black sons, to have a black man in a hoodie and have them not be a threat," Coker says, but he also says that the show would be the same even if Black Lives Matter protests weren't roiling in the streets.
"Black art has always tried to prove that black lives matter. Langston Hughes. James Baldwin. Richard Wright. Ralph Ellison. It's always been about showing our humanity, showing that we exist, that our perspectives are important. Calling it a Black Lives Matter show erases the context that all black art, from the very beginning, from the evolution of the blues, has been about showing that our lives are equal and beautiful. The show is the personification of that. It's not a hashtag."
"And, " he adds, "I just wanted it to be cool, man. It's not a polemic. Public Enemy is political but their records don't work if they're not funky."
"Marvel's Luke Cage" is definitely funky, or rather, jazzy. Though Coker was a former hip-hop journalist and episodes are named after Gang Starr songs, the show takes a film noir approach and the musicians that appear onstage in the villain's nightclub are retro-soul artists like Raphael Saadiq and Charles Bradley. These artistic choices give the show a timeless, slightly fantastical feel, despite its street-level grit.
And Cage, as played by Colter, is a magnificent presence whether on the streets, in the barbershop or behind bars. Though violent when the situation calls for it, he's a calm, romantic, intelligent and powerful community defender that will provide black viewers with the same sort of superheroic role model that their white peers have always enjoyed.
Colter was a fan of Spider-Man and the Hulk when growing up, and says he didn't really notice that none of the heroes looked like him. But times have changed.
"The black community wants to buy things, and want to see themselves portrayed in a certain way. And if they don't like what they see then they won't spend their money," he says. "Everyone's not gonna always relate to Captain America, everyone is not going to always relate to Thor. A lot of characters just don't speak to them. So what characters do speak to them?"
Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Pop ("The Wire" star Frankie Faison) chilling outside the barbershop.
Coker, who grew up as a Wolverine fan, sees this issue from the same angle.
"Not being white has never prevented me from enjoying Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. These are heroes of mine. But at the same time when it comes from your experience it has a certain power to it," he says.
"I remember when my kids first saw the 'Captain America: Winter Soldier' trailer, and that moment with Anthony Mackie [The Falcon] when he jumps up and spread his wings for the first time, just the power of it. Their eyes lit up. I'll never forget it. What is it like for young black kids, from an imagination standpoint, to see people who look like them doing important things?"
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